By Steve Weddle
A dude doing color commentary for the Olympic ski-jumping Saturday night was explaining why the athletes looked like six-foot-tall jockeys: “Fat don’t fly.”
Dick Francis died recently.
People who have never been to Chicago could probably recommend a good place for a drink if they’ve read a Sean Chercover novel.
So here’s the thing. Everyone wants to be able to play the piano or the guitar, but fewer people want to learn. People want to be karate masters, but don't want to get out of bed before the sun just so they can run ten miles.
They want to have done stuff more than they want to do stuff. People want to know stuff, but they don't wanna learn stuff.
I spent many hours, feet folded under me on hardwood floors, watching my sensei punch, kick, twist, turn, blah, blah, blah. I spent many hours working on center-of-gravity stuff, finding that little bit of extra power hiding in a hip turn, chanting "block-counter" over and over until I forgot about it.
When the dude said "Fat don't fly" about the ski jumping, I started writing a story. The "in-my-head" kind of story that never finds paper. A murder mystery at a ski jump school. Why? Because, c'mon. Ski jump school. How cool would that be? Do you know anything about ski jump schools? I don't. And you know what? It would be wicked cool to find out, especially if I found out while reading a novel.
Dick Francis taught more people about horse racing than [insert name of famous horse racing person here] ever did. I am not sure of the exact number of horse-racing novels he wrote, but I think it was something around seventeen million. And when you read something like that, you feel like you're learning something. Like watching a documentary on TV. "I'm not wasting my time. I'm learning about medieval castles while I fall asleep."
You know all that hippie crap about how literature teaches us the something-something about the human condition? Or the soul? Yeah. Hokum. Part of what makes a great crime fiction book, for me, is getting the non-fiction hidden in the fiction. You know, like hiding your dog's heart worm pill in a piece of cheese?
The books in which you learn something. Books with place or occupation or culture. Part of why we read, according to some documentary I saw, is for escapism. To live another life for a few hundred pages. Sure, sounds like mumbo-jumbo to me, too. But Professor Egghead might be right about it.
I really dig seeing how a person does his or her job. My wife likes those reality shows about jobs -- fashion or cooking or catching fish. You ever see that Ice Road Truckers? Or the one with those folks who cut down trees? It's great to see how other people do their jobs. You feel as if you're learning something, connecting, y'know? Like, hey, I know a little bit, a very little bit, about trucking supplies over a frozen lake to over-worked Canadians.
To me, this is different than those period pieces they turn into movies. The "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to fall in love in one of those pretty dresses and go to a fancy dance and live in a house with bedpans and die of dysentery and leeches" kind of stories. I'm talking about the stories where you learn about someone's occupation, someone's professional culture. Someone's world. Someone's life. Where you're pulled into the world of a prison guard or a Chicago PI or a jockey or an Olympic skier. You're being pulled into someone else's world and watching lives fall apart and maybe, just maybe, get pieced back together. And isn't that what good fiction is always about?
Do you find non-fiction in the fiction you read?
Do you research other occupations for your characters?
Does reading about someone's job in crime fiction bug you or is that something you enjoy?